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Israel’s New Generation of Leaders Begin to Speak Up

June 29, 2013

by Alan Elsner

Adi-Koll-Yesh-AtidOne of the unexpected results of last January’s Israeli election was the emergence of 47 new members of parliament, 13 of them under the age of 40, who have taken their places among the 120 Knesset members.

They include people like Russian-born Yoel Razvozov, a former Israeli Judo Team captain, who won two silver medals in the European championships; Karin Elharar, who directed law clinics for the disabled and the elderly and Holocaust survivors, and Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shapir, who emerged from the 2011 street protests for social justice that riveted the nation.

These leaders are now beginning to make their voices heard in Israeli politics.

During the past week, my organization, J Street, has been honored to host Dr. Adi Koll, one of the brightest of these new Israeli voices, for a series of meetings, dialogues and public speaking events across the country. For many Americans, including American Jews, it was a first opportunity to meet a leading representative of this rising generation of Israeli leaders.

Koll says she was motivated to get involved in politics by a deep desire to heal her nation’s pressing social problems while renewing efforts to reach peace with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors based on a two-state solution.

“I was elected as part of the new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, which gained 19 seats in the January election, emerging as the second largest party in parliament. What propelled us to this surprising success was a general craving among Israelis for change from voters disillusioned with our professional political class who have run the country for decades, neglecting the poor, allowing social divisions to widen and the peace process to languish,” she says.

“Most of my party colleagues had established careers and satisfying jobs outside of politics but felt compelled to step into the arena by their sense that our country was moving seriously off-track, both domestically and in its foreign policy.”

Koll taught law at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion universities and established the “University of the People,” which enables less privileged Israelis to prepare for entry into degree programs. She also campaigned for health, education, and protecting children from abuse.

“So many young, educated Israelis of my generation and younger,” she observes, “have basically given up on politics as a vehicle for achieving social change and social justice. Many look for opportunities overseas rather than stay to try to build the kind of country they would like to live in. But hundreds of thousands of others have come out into the streets to demonstrate for social justice, forcing the government to listen to the voices of those they have neglected for so long. And now, several leaders of this grassroots protest movement have joined the political process and taken seats in the Knesset.”

In its first few months in the government, Yesh Atid has focused on passing a budget to close a widening deficit and on enacting legislation to spread the burden of defending the nation to the burgeoning ultra-orthodox community whose members currently are able to avoid military service. They expect this legislation to pass sometime this summer.

Some have interpreted that initial focus to mean that Yesh Atid was uninterested in pursuing peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Koll says such assessments are just plain wrong. As Lapid told the Washington Post last weekend:

“For me, there’s no other game in town but the two-state solution. The Palestinians must have their own country, and the Israelis must understand that the Palestinians should have their own country. I’m going to push for this as hard as I can because I think this is really important for Israel.”

Koll herself has many friends in Ramallah and often visit for open dialogues. “What these dialogues have taught me is how fundamentally similar we are,” she says. I and my Palestinian contemporaries want the same kinds of things -- a good, secure life; a decent job; a roof over our heads; good schools and a better life for our children. The Palestinians I know crave this kind of normality -- and so do Israelis -- but they can’t achieve this under occupation, and neither at the end of the day can we.”

That’s why, in her opinion, there is no alternative to the two-state solution. “Most Israelis know it; most Palestinians know it; most American Jews know it. Now, we need to make it happen.”

Alan Elsner opened the first Reuters bureau in Jerusalem in 1983 and was Reuters’ chief political correspondent for the 1996 and 2000 U.S. presidential elections. Prior to joining J Street, Elsner served for two years as the executive director and director of communications for The Israel Project.